The Flavor of Change
Twenty years ago, hungry customers would stop by convenience stores for a hot dog with traditional toppings, a cup they'd fill with one of a small number of fountain soda options, and perhaps pick up something fried for on the side. There were very few expectations for freshness, quality or variety.
Flash forward two decades and c-store operators have raised the bar, transforming the industry's image from a foodservice last resort to a foodservice destination — one where consumers will debate which brand has the tastiest menu.
It's not a passing fad. The 2017 Convenience Store News Foodservice Study shows the category saw yet another year of growth in sales and profits last year, with small operators and chains having reason for continued optimism as they prepare for the future.
Other research into consumer perceptions and behaviors confirms that when, where and how they buy food is changing, and c-stores are more than able to be part of the mix with quick-service restaurants, fast-casual chains, and other foodservice outlets.
The opportunity is obvious; the best way to capitalize is a bit harder to identify.
Yes, consumers are more willing to view c-stores as a foodservice destination, but what specific items should a retailer offer them? Should the menu be broad to offer choice, or small and specialized to reflect expertise?
People desire new flavors and diverse toppings, but which ones does the local market prefer? Should customizable products be self-serve or made-to-order? With limited space and funds, what should be prioritized in program investment — and how should employees be trained?
Even ambitious retailers with specific foodservice goals can find themselves overwhelmed by so many important considerations, where answering one question might prompt several others.
The good news, though, is that while developing a quality foodservice program that's capable of competing within and outside the convenience channel will never be easy, c-store retailers big and small have many options for assistance and advice.
It's an exciting time for the industry, and with so many c-stores just at the beginning of their foodservice journey and more experienced retailers pushing the limits of what convenience foodservice can be, the next 20 years might be the most exciting of all.